Sergeant Grischa Iljitsch Paprotkin
Sergeant Grischa Iljitsch Paprotkin (GREE-shah ee-LEECH pah-PROHT-kihn), a Russian soldier held as a prisoner by the Germans in 1917. Though not ill-treated by his captors, he wishes to return to his family, and so contrives an escape. During his lonely wanderings, he begins to lose his humanity, but he recovers it when he becomes the lover of Babka, a woman leading a band of refugees who take him into their midst. Sergeant Grischa assumes the identity of Sergeant Pavlovitsch Bjuscheff, a Russian deserter, so that he can avoid punishment as an escaped prisoner. He is recaptured and, under his assumed identity, sentenced to death as a spy. While his case is fought over by German generals after he has revealed the truth about himself, Grischa remains in prison, hoping the war will end. When his sentence is not revoked he behaves like a brave soldier, even when forced to dig his own grave before being killed.
Babka, a strong-minded, vigorous Russian woman, known affectionately as “Grandmother,” who leads a band of homeless refugees. She finds Grischa wandering across the countryside and makes him a member of her band and her lover. When he is sentenced to death, she bravely goes to him, walking many miles to do so. She hopes to free her lover by poisoning his guards, but he prevents her from carrying out the plan, believing he must meet his fate. After Grischa’s death Babka bears his child.
General von Lychow
General von Lychow (LI-chov), a Prussian officer of the military caste who is a commander of combat troops. He is jealous of upstart administrative officers who question his authority and authorizes his aide to work on the case of Grischa to save the life of the condemned man.
Ponsanski, General von Lychow’s aide, a Jewish lawyer who is interested in the case primarily from the view that it is an interesting instance of legal jurisdiction.
General Schieffenzahn (shee-fehn-ZAHN), an administrative officer who usurps the authority of General von Lychow. He wishes to execute Grischa to demonstrate his power. Although he is persuaded to send a reprieve for the sergeant, a snowstorm prevents delivery of the message.
Lieutenant Winfried, a German officer and friend of Ponsanski.
Lieutenant Wilhelmi, General Schieffenzahn’s aide, who recommends the death of Grischa.